Sometimes supermarket shopping in China means getting a little more than you bargained for. How about eggplant with a side of the banned pesticide methamidophos?

Greenpeace volunteers present a letter to Tesco's China headquarters in Beijing requesting the supermarket chain ensure its agricultural suppliers stop using harmful and, in some cases, illegal pesticides.

That's what Greenpeace volunteers discovered earlier this year when they went undercover to test the presence of pesticides in the rice and fresh produce being sold in Lotus supermarkets across Shanghai and Wuhan. Banned pesticides were also discovered in produce from the global supermarket chain Tesco in their Beijing and Guangzhou stores, and Lianhua supermarkets (along with affiliate stores Hualian and Century Mart) across Shanghai, Wuhan and Hangzhou. One leek sample from Lianhua contained pesticide residue procymidone levels at 1.05 mg/kg. This exceeds the Chinese maximum residue level (MRL) standard of 0.02 mg/kg by 52 times, essentially making it an illegal product to sell in China.

Every year 1.7 million tons of pesticide is sprayed on the fields of China. 25% are used on vegetables, 20% are used on rice and 10% on wheat (China Yearbook of Agriculture, 2009). In some vegetable production areas farmers apply pesticide on their vegetables every second to third day throughout the entire growing season. The overwhelming majority of these farms are very small scale. It's only recently farmers associations are enabling better and more direct access to high value market players such as retailers, giving farmers the opportunity to get a fairer price for their stock and facilitate food safety and quality control.

Supermarket giants such as Tesco should be leading the way when it comes to shifting China's agricultural industry to an eco-agricultural one, which includes reducing the country's heavy use of chemicals in production. And instead they, along with Lotus and Lianhua, are seriously lax in keeping to China's current standards.

Between April and July of this year, Greenpeace sampled 50 vegetable and fruit samples and 12 rice samples from Tesco, Lotus, Lianhua and its affiliates. 35 vegetable and fruit samples contained pesticides. 23 samples contained the pesticide that EU classification lists as hormone disruptors. 19 contained pesticides the EU listed as possibly harmful to unborn babies. Some samples even contained pesticides have been banned in China for over four years.

Studies in Europe, the US and Japan have shown that long term exposure to even the slightest amount of pesticide can still harm our health, such as affecting our hormone system, harming unborn babies and possibly lead to infertility. And it's not just the consumers who are at risk. It is the farmers, their families and the people of their community, who are in the greatest of dangers.

It's not fair to expect the common farmer alone to end the nation's addiction to pesticides. From production to retail, it's a shared responsibility among producers, suppliers and retailers to ensure food safety. Corporate and social responsibility means doing more than just what the law requires. The actions of the "big three" of China’s supermarket biz have the potential to be game changers. They have the capacity to control pesticide in their products and so it's to them that we ask: are we going to see an end to hazardous levels of pesticides in China's food?

(Read the full report, in Chinese.)

Results of each supermarket

Tesco

  • 16 vegetable and fruit samples were taken from Tescos in Beijing and Guangzhou. Among them, 11 were found containing pesticide residues. Six samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Six samples contained pesticides that EU classifies as possibly harmful to unborn babies.
  • A spinach sample contained pesticide procymidone level 2.99 mg/kg, which exceeds the EU MRL of 0.02 mg/kg by 149 times. The pesticide itself is no longer allowed to be used in EU as it has been classified as a suspected hormone disruptor.
  • One leafy vegetable sample turned up two kinds of pesticides, methamidophos and monocrotophos, the use of which have been prohibited in China since the beginning of year 2007.
  • Out of four rice samples taken, one contained 0.02 mg/kg of isoprothiolane pesticide residue, which is above the EU MRL standard. In the EU this product would not be allowed to be sold.

Lotus

  • We sampled 12 fruit and vegetable samples from stores in Shanghai and Wuhan. Nine samples contained pesticide residues. Seven samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Five contained pesticide residues that EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
  • A Chinese leek sample and an eggplant sample contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since 2007. The pesticide was also found on a rice sample at low levels.

Lianhua, with affiliate stores Hualian and Century Mart

  • We sampled 22 fruit and vegetable samples from supermarkets in Shanghai, Wuhan and Hangzhou. 15 samples were found to contain pesticide residues. 11 samples contained pesticides that the EU classifiers suspect to be hormone disruptors. Eight contained pesticides the EU classifiers suspect may harm unborn babies.
  • A Chinese leek sample contained pesticide residue procymidone levels of 1.05 mg/kg. This exceeds the Chinese MRL standard of 0.02 mg/kg. The pesticide residue carbendazim levels of 3.21 mg/kg also exceed the Chinese MRL standard of 2mg/kg. These two pesticides are both categorized by the EU as hormone disruptors. Procymidone is not allowed to be used in the EU.
  • A leafy vegetable contained the pesticide methamidophos, the use of which has been banned since year 2007.